Hempfield softball team lives up to the hype during repeat run
Hempfield softball players and coaches finally can step back and admire their handiwork. The senior-led Spartans won everything they could in their finest season, the reddest rose in a bouquet of them.
• Back-to-back PIAA championships.
• The first undefeated season in program history (27-0).
• Three consecutive WPIAL titles.
• A string of 41 straight wins dating to last season.
Most of all, and perhaps the toughest part, was living up to the hype. But Hempfield did, and this group will have the largest snapshot in the family album because of it.
“This is the best team I have ever played on,” senior pitcher Morgan Ryan said.
Hempfield became the first team in the state's largest classification to win back-to-back state titles when it downed Hazleton, 5-3, in Thursday's Class 6A final at Penn State. Hempfield won Class AAAA last year.
This was the first year for six classes, but AAAA used to be the top class, and for years, AAA was the biggest.
Whatever the class, Hempfield earned straight As.
With a four-player nucleus to build around, the Spartans reloaded and kept the wins coming, dominating some teams and rallying from behind to beat several others.
“A lot of teams wanted to get a piece of us,” Ryan said. “There was pressure on us all year. This group is so special to me. We've been playing together since we were 9 and 10 at West Point.”
The group experienced success early on and built on it. They won the Little League World Series with the West Point Juniors in 2014 in Kirkland, Wash. Ryan's mother, Shelly, coached that team.
The team was recognized before the House of Representatives. The back-to-back PIAA titles brought a long and gratifying journey full circle when they were recognized as the state's best Thursday in State College.
“This was a group that wanted to make a name for itself and not live in the shadow of last year's team,” Ryan said.
The pieces were fastened into place. Hempfield just had to perform.
“Every kid had something different to add to the lineup,” said veteran coach Bob Kalp, who completed his 21st season as head coach with his third state title to go with five WPIAL titles. “Once we got it all ironed out, my lineup didn't change all year.
“It's not like having a professional football or baseball team where you can retain players. You lose players to graduation, and, usually, it changes the dynamics of a team. We were a different team style-wise. The core group from last year was back, and from there, we added kids.”
Ryan and senior Madi Stoner were the undrainable battery. A Hillsdale recruit, Stoner was the catcher who charged up the defense and called Ryan's strikes.
The Notre Dame-bound Ryan finished her decorated career with several program highs: 73 pitching wins, 16 home runs and a nice, even 100 RBIs.
Her 584 strikeouts are third all-time in the program.
Seven seniors, all of whom committed to play in college, paved the way. And what a senior group it was.
“Ever since freshman year, which was the low year of our careers when we didn't make WPIALs, to our sophomore years when we fell short at states, to last year we won WPIAL and state,” Ryan said. “This year, we had the big claims we were going to be back and do it again. To see the hard work pay off, there's no sweeter way to go out. But it's bittersweet to knowing that you're never going to play with the same group of girls again.”
Senior Ali Belgiovane (Pitt-Johnstown) moved from first base to shortstop — and from the No. 9 spot in the batting order to leadoff. Seniors Autumn Beasley (Shenandoah) and Jordan Bernard (Wheeling Jesuit) held down the outfield, along with sophomore Laura Fox.
Junior Megan Monzo and senior Stacey Walling (Pitt-Johnstown) were strong at third and first, respectively, and senior Jenna Osikowicz (Seton Hill) had another stellar year at second.
Kalp said two of the key additions who “were not on the horizon” at the start of the season were Fox and junior designated player Kelsey Tobin, two of six first-year starters who made significant impacts and kept the fear factor strong in the program.
Tobin had the team's highest batting average heading into the state final — from the No. 9 spot.
“She was an unknown JV player last year,” Kalp said. “She was an add-on last year. So many girls just stepped in and picked right up for us.”
With speed at the top and extra-base ability throughout the rest of the order, Hempfield could not be pitched around. There was no retreat in a team that always came up with the big hit.
“It wasn't just one through nine, it was one through 20,” Ryan said. “We could all put the ball in play and produce runs.”
And that led to the bravado and hardware.
“Lot of good kids,” Kalp said. “Having seven seniors in the lineup is a big plus (in the championship). But right after the game, it's a big minus because they're gone. That's seven holes in the lineup we have to fill next year. But we'll worry about that in a few weeks.”
Kalp always has something to critique with his program, but even he could not overanalyze this group and its perfect ending.
“Well, we did lose to Yough, 1-0, in a scrimmage,” Kalp said.